One in every five adults in the U.S. — over 43 million Americans — experience a mental illness every single year; the most common types being anxiety and major depression disorder1. With millions of Americans affected, it may be shocking to find out that 60% of people suffering from a mental illness do not get medical treatment for their condition.
There are a variety of reason people experience a mental illness, and a growing body of research shows that our diet plays an influential role. If we can better understand the impact dietary choices have on our mental health, then we can make better decisions to experience both physical and psychological wellness.
We are all aware that eating a healthy diet helps to fight obesity and promotes our physical health. However, it seems that the foods we choose to eat also regulate our mental health such as our thoughts, emotions and moods.
Let’s learn more about mental illness, different types of these diseases and how we can help to control or prevent mental illness with our diet and nutrition.
Mental Illness Explained
A mental illness is a condition that affects how an individual thinks and feels, what type of mood they have and how they behave. A person’s mental state influences all aspects of their life, from their interaction with others, life choices, careers and self-esteem.
There are a multitude of different mental illnesses, including:
- Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): A developmental disorder that may lead to issues with attention, hyperactivity and impulsivity.
- Anxiety Disorder
- Bipolar Disorder: A disorder that leads to severe highs and lows in a person’s mood and thought process.
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD): A disorder that causes mood swings, unstable behavior, a low self-esteem and difficulty interacting with others.
- Dissociative Disorder: A disorder that influences how a person sees oneself and affects their memory.
- Psychosis: A disorder that makes it very hard for a person to separate reality from their perceptions of it.
- Eating Disorder: A disorder that influences how a person sees oneself, causing poor self-esteem and harmful behaviors, such as severe and unnecessary food restrictions and induced vomiting.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): A disorder where a person’s unwanted thoughts cause them to act in a compulsive way and perform unnecessary and repeated actions.
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: A disorder that causes a person to relive a trauma over and over, and may lead to depression and anxiety.
- Schizoaffective Disorder: A disorder that may cause hallucinations and illusions.
- Schizophrenia: A disorder that may cause hallucinations, illusions, disturbed thoughts and actions that may be harmful to the self and others.
Every single one of us may experience symptoms of a mental illness from time to time, which should not be a cause for alarm. We may all experience sadness, worries, a poor self image or problems with others, but that does not mean that we are suffering from an actual mental disorder. However, it’s important to seek medical help if the problems you are experiencing do not go away and prevent you from living your daily life.
Causes of Mental Illness
There are many phycological factors that influence mental health, but below we examine three of the most common physical issues that impact mental illness.
Some psychiatric disorders, such as major depression and schizophrenia, tend to run in families, and genes may be the cause. A 2013 study2 reported that two genes, CACNA1C andCACNB2, that regulate the rate at which calcium flows into neurons, along with two chromosomes (3 and 10) were linked to five mental disorders.
While genetics play a significant role in the development of mental conditions, they are not the only cause. This is proven by a look identical twins — if one is diagnosed with schizophrenia, the other twin has less than 50% of a chance of developing the same condition3. This means that the environment (which some scientists label as anything outside of genetics) may be the other big cause. This may include the use of drugs and alcohol, injuries, vaccinations, illnesses, sexual abuse, a bad breakup, child abuse and other trauma.
Many studies4 have found that diet doesn’t only affect our physical health (weight, heart health and diabetes), but also our mental health. Eating a well-balanced diet may lead to feelings of wellbeing and lower stress, anxiety and symptoms of depression.
Thinking about your diet’s relation to mood is important because it’s a completely different perspective on mental health. While some people believe that we are predisposed to mental problems because of our past, and others believe that expensive psycho-therapeutic approaches are the only way to find relief — diet gives people power over mental health through their own choices. Let’s take a look at the research in to learn more.
Research on the Link Between Diet and Mental Health
It’s shocking to find out how many medical professionals never mention the role diet plays in the prevention and control of mental health symptoms. The truth is that dietary choices may affect us even before we are born.
Diet and Pregnancy
Early life programming refers to the belief that what fetuses are exposed to during the gestational period likely influences their health upon birth. The role of maternal dietary intake, specifically, has been highlighted after recent studies have shown maternal diet quality to predict mental health problems in offspring.
Studies5 have found that:
- Some scientists believe that the link between diet and mental health goes even further, and a mother’s diet before pregnancy can also lead to mental health problems in offspring.
- One animal study6 found a link between a father’s preconception diet and the health of their offspring.
These studies suggest that what your parents ate before you were conceived could have led to the development of a mental health issues.
Childhood and Adolescence
A study found that half of all mental illnesses are first observed in people younger that 14 years of age7. This led those researchers to assert that “most adult disorders should be reframed as extensions of juvenile disorders.”
Recently, data5 has emerged to support the relationship between the mental health of children and their dietary patterns. Therefore, if most mental health conditions start developing in childhood, and they may be influenced by dietary choices, this means that feeding a healthy, well-balanced diet to children and adolescents is vital to protect their mental health.
This way of thinking is confirmed by study after study:
- A review of 12 studies8 “found evidence of a significant, cross-sectional relationship between unhealthy dietary patterns and poorer mental health in children and adolescents.”
- A UK study9 of adolescents found that those with the unhealthiest diets reported the most significant symptoms on their mental health assessment using a Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ).
- An Australian study10 of over 7,000 adolescents found an “association between diet quality and adolescent depression that exists over and above the influence of socioeconomic, family, and other potential confounding factors.”
- Another Australian study11 of over 4,000 adolescents found that an unhealthy diet led to greater emotional distress.
While eating a healthy diet during childhood is necessary to promote good mental health over an entire lifespan, continuing this practice throughout one’s life is imperative for optimal results. Let’s look at the science:
- A study12 of Arctic and Subarctic populations found that when their dietary patterns changed based on increased contact with the Western population, it led to a decline in their mental health (depression, seasonal affective disorder, anxiety and suicide).
- Results from a study13 of over 5,500 adults showed that a healthy diet led to lower rates of depression and anxiety. A Norwegian diet (full of whole grains, berries, root vegetables, nuts and seafood) was linked to better mental health, while the Western diet was linked to poorer mental health.
- A four-year study14 of over 11,000 people found that those that switched to a Mediterranean diet (healthy oils, whole-grains, legumes and nuts) were able to improve their mental health.
- A study15 of 161 women reported that “greater depression severity was associated with poorer overall diet quality.”
Due to the fact that 1 of out every 8 Americans is over the age of 65, it’s vital to determine methods for these populations to stay physically and mentally healthy16. High costs of medical care of an aging society can be passed down to everyone else, so learning ways to promote a healthy lifestyle is extremely advantageous.
It’s unfortunate that few studies have explored the interrelationships among dietary measures and quality-of-life indexes in older adults because there is a substantial decline in food intake with advancing age. Older individuals simply tend to eat less and derive fewer vital nutrients the body needs, such as protein, vitamins, and minerals16. This raises the question of whether there need to be different dietary guidelines for the elderly that help them to consume the much needed nutrients.
The studies below confirm the importance of a healthy diet for a healthy mental state:
- A 2010 Australian study17 looked at the dietary choices of both men and women from 55 to 65 years-old. All of the adults who ate a healthy diet reported betters scores on the health-related quality of life survey, and women reported better emotional wellbeing.
- “Optimal nutrition… makes a significant contribution to the overall quality of life at any age and especially for older adults.16“
- A 3-year study18 of 1,488 adults between the ages of 67 and 84 found “relationships between diet quality and risk factors for chronic diseases associated with cognition.”
Why Food Influences Our Mental Health
It’s pretty simple to understand why foods play such a pivotal role in regulating both our physical and mental health — because our brain is always on and running, and it requires nutrients from food to stay healthy.
“What you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood,” according to Harvard Medical School19.
For example, serotonin is a neurotransmitter often called “the happy chemical” because it controls our mood, our appetite, our sense of pain and our sleep cycle. Needless to say, when we are happy, sated, not in pain and well-rested, we are happy.
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You may be surprised to find out that almost all (95% to be exact) of serotonin is not produced in our brain, but in our gastrointestinal track. Therefore, it requires the good bacteria from our intestinal microbiome to function properly. When we eat foods that are full of nutrients, we help our body fight inflammation (oxidative stress that ages and kills off our cells) and protect our minds. However, when we make poor dietary choices, we develop bad bacteria that damages our digestive track and prevents the regulation of serotonin between the gut and the brain.
This is further proven by studies19 that show that individuals who take probiotics (supplements that add healthy bacteria to our gut flora, see that “their anxiety levels, perception of stress, and mental outlook improve.”
Best Diet for Mental Health
We hope that the science we presented in this article convinced you of the importance of healthy eating in each and every stage of life.
Many studies show that people who enjoy Japanese, Mediterranean and Nordic diets have better mental health, and found that the risk of depression is 25% lower than in those who a eat Western diet16. This is due to the fact that while Americans enjoy many processed, refined and sugar-laden foods, traditional diets worldwide rely on healthy oils, nuts and whole grains.
Below are guidelines for foods that you should enjoy, and foods you should avoid, to promote your mental health. Remember to also eat a wide variety of healthy foods to increase the nutrients and minerals your body needs. Since certain nutrients require others in order to be absorbed by the body, maximizing the variety of foods you eat is recommended.
Best Foods for a Healthy Mind
- Fruits: Berries and Bananas
- Fermented foods: Kefir, Kimchi and Sauerkraut
- Fish: Pollock, Cod, Oysters, Scallops, and Shrimp (wild caught)
- Spices: Turmeric and Garlic
- Healthy Fats: Olive Oil, Avocado Oil, Grass-Fed Butter, Ghee and Coconut Oil
Worst Foods for a Healthy Mind
- Refined Sugars
- Processed Foods
- Refined Carbs
- Trans Fats
- Artificial Sweeteners
- Mercury: found in fish such as swordfish and tuna
- White Flour
- High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
- Excessive Caffeine
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The best investment you can make is to fuel your body with the right ingredients to promote your health. Talk to your doctor about foods you should be eating based on your age and genetic predisposition. Remember, however, that many Western doctors may use the traditional way of thinking that only medication can treat mental illness.
You can reinvigorate both your mental and physical health with UMZU’s line of clinically-proven supplements that are designed to correct micronutrient deficiencies and balance your hormonal ecosystem. Our highly rated mental-health product Cortigon reduces stress hormones and helps you to stabilize your mood effortlessly. While Dopa Mucuna promotes focus, attention and helps users become more present in their daily lives.
Do your own research and learn how to promote good mental health and only consume foods that will keep your mind young, fresh and always happy.
Citations and Sources
- 1. National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), “Mental Health By The Numbers“
- 2. National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Common Genetic Factors Found in 5 Mental Disorders“
- 3. Environmental Health Prospectives (EHP), “Environmental Connections: A Deeper Look into Mental Illness“
- 4. Mental Health Foundation, “Diet and Mental Health“
- 5. BMC Medicine, “Preventing mental health problems in offspring by targeting dietary intake of pregnant women“
- 6. Nature Communications, “Low paternal dietary folate alters the mouse sperm epigenome and is associated with negative pregnancy outcomes”
- 7. Archives of General Psychiatry, “Prior juvenile diagnoses in adults with mental disorder: developmental follow-back of a prospective-longitudinal cohort.“
- 8. American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), “Relationship Between Diet and Mental Health in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review”
- 9. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, “Diet quality and mental health problems in adolescents from East London: a prospective study”
- 10. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry “Associations between diet quality and depressed mood in adolescents: results from the Australian Healthy Neighbourhoods Study“
- 11. Interventions and Public Health Nutrition, “Associations between diet quality and mental health in socially disadvantaged New Zealand adolescents“
- 12. International Journal of Circumpolar Health, “Diet and mental health in the Arctic: is diet an important risk factor for mental health in circumpolar peoples? – a review:
- 13. Psychosomatic Medicine, “The Association Between Habitual Diet Quality and the Common Mental Disorders in Community-Dwelling Adults: The Hordaland Health Study“
- 14. Interventions and Public Health Nutrition, “Adherence to the Mediterranean diet and quality of life in the SUN Project“
- 15. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “Depression Severity, Diet Quality, and Physical Activity in Women with Obesity and Depression“
- 16. The Journals of Gerontology, “Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Quality of Life in Older Adults: Summary”
- 17. Experimental Gerontology, “Associations of diet quality with health-related quality of life in older Australian men and women“
- 18. Experimental Gerontology, “Diet quality and cognition among older adults from the NuAge study“
- 19. Harvard Medical School, “Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food“